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Friday, March 05, 2010

San Francisco police chief Gascon gives up on arming officers with tasers

March 5, 2010
Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- A day after the San Francisco Police Commission rejected his proposal to arm officers with Tasers, Chief George Gascón said Thursday he is giving up his push for the devices that he billed as a possible alternative to the use of deadly force.

The commission voted 4-3 just before midnight Wednesday not to give Gascón the go-ahead to develop guidelines under which officers could use the electronic stun guns, which would have been a first step toward adopting Tasers.

Opponents pointed to studies suggesting that the devices can kill people with heart conditions or even those who are otherwise healthy, and were skeptical of police promises that officers' use of Tasers would be sharply restricted.

In an interview Thursday, Gascón said he was "extremely disappointed" by the vote and would no longer press the matter.

"The majority of the commission has spoken loud and clear on this issue - they don't want to address it," Gascón said. "So we're going to just back off from it for the time being."

Chief researched incidents

Gascón, who had cited a study finding that as many as a third of 15 officer-involved shootings in a five-year period in San Francisco could have been avoided with Tasers, added: "Hopefully, there will not be any unfortunate incidents."

The Taser proposal was the first major policy initiative that Gascón had brought before the commission, which hired him on a unanimous vote last year on the recommendation of Mayor Gavin Newsom. Some of the commissioners who voted against the plan made it clear they felt the chief had overstepped his authority by not letting the panel be involved in vetting his idea.

Commissioner Petra DeJesus, one of three panel members appointed by the Board of Supervisors, said she refused to be a "rubber stamp" for the Police Department and Gascón, whom she accused of trying to circumvent a full review on whether the devices were safe to use on suspects.

DeJesus and the other commissioners appointed by the supervisors, Vincent Pan and Jim Hammer, joined Newsom appointee Yvonne Lee in rejecting Tasers.

Three backers on panel

All three votes in favor were cast by Newsom's other appointees - panel President Joe Marshall and Commissioners Thomas Mazzucco and David Onek.

During Wednesday's five-hour meeting, Gascón cited research by the Police Executive Research Forum think tank that found that police departments that adopted Tasers had dramatically lower rates of shootings and injuries than other departments.

But the commission also heard from two UCSF cardiology professors whose study of 50 police departments in California found that officer-involved shootings and deaths of suspects actually spiked during the first year of Taser deployment.

Other critics noted that roughly 400 people in the United States have died since 2001 after being hit with Tasers.

Hammer - who had attended a news conference Gascón held last week to push for Tasers - said Wednesday night that the UCSF study data had changed his mind.

He said almost half the department's 2,000 officers have not yet undergone training for dealing with mentally ill suspects, who he said were more likely to resist police orders and thus be hit with Tasers. Until those officers are trained, he said, he won't "rush into" adopting Tasers.

'He is the CEO'

Marshall, the panel's president, said he was bewildered by the vote.

"We brought him in there," Marshall said of Gascón. "He is the CEO, he runs the organization. He should be given the opportunity to try things."

Police union President Gary Delagnes called the commission's vote "political correctness run amok. Four people on the Police Commission obviously think that they know more than the experts in the field, more than the police chief.

"The next time someone in the city is killed, and it could have been prevented because of a use of Taser, the blood is on their hands," Delagnes said.

Gascón has cautioned that Tasers could not be used in lieu of guns in all situations, but he said he could easily envision situations where officers would use a Taser if given the choice. He said the commission's vote eliminated that possibility.

"What we're saying, is, 'You know what? We would rather you use a firearm and forget about the possibility of having this other option,' " Gascón said.

"I don't believe the commission is doing this to send any kind of personal message to me," he said. "But I think they are sending a message to the public and the organization at large. I'm not really sure what that message is.

"In the meantime, we've still got officers encountering situations out there with a tool bag that lacks all the tools that are available today."

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